Echoes on the Shore: Reflections on the Legacy of Carl Sagan
By Christian Brown
Christian Brown is a PhD Student at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, USA
Thirty years after inviting us all to wade in the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean, Carl Sagan’s words still continue to reverberate through our minds. Equal parts scientist and sage, poet and performer, he became for many a first guide to the Cosmos. The endearing timbre and cadence of his spoken word was only matched by the craftsmanship of his writing. Like most human beings noted throughout time for their charisma and moving power, his words touch the masses with a sweeping sense of drama, and yet capture the imagination of the individual with the intimacy of the personal and sacred. The Cosmos television series and book have become iconic benchmarks in the popularization of science, vividly demonstrating that unlike so many of those charismatic speakers through history, Sagan was a spokesman for a glorious reality that is, for all of its awesomeness, undeniably real. In the eye of the public, geniuses and charlatans alike are most often judged not by the content of their message, but by the skillfulness of their delivery. Sagan was a rare blend of style and substance, a potent combination of showmanship and the sacrosanct, the likes of which can capture the attention of an entire planet. As our fledgling civilization continues to adventure into the shores of the cosmic ocean, we realize that we have lost one of our most talented guides. We therefore must strive to never lose his message and, even more importantly, to never lose sight of the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean, to which we were carried on the shoulders of giants.
For all of his genuine awe at the immense harmony of the natural world and steadfast optimism for society, Sagan retained a rational sense of caution regarding the fate of our tiny planet. The span of years between such works as Cosmos (1980), Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994), and The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995) saw remarkable change in the world for better and for worse; even with the conclusion of the Cold War and the dawning of the Information Age, the persistent threat of global annihilation, the reality of human suffering, and the growing popularity of pseudoscientific thought were all tangibly extant. Throughout these books, however, Sagan would often submit a variation on the same sobering caveat: the fate of humankind is that of wondrous discovery and boundless potential, if only we can save ourselves from self-destruction. For individuals of great intelligence, a purely dismal perspective on earthly affairs is easy to hold. For Sagan, the coupling of his brilliance and optimism led to a cautious hope and a passionate sense of activism, manifesting itself through his outreach as a scientist, educator, and environmental and anti-war activist. That one person could accomplish so much in a lifetime is astounding; that so many other individuals endowed with equal amounts of ability, resources, and influence do comparatively little is agonizing.
Skepticism alone will not save humanity from its own destruction; in turn, optimism alone will never accomplish the lofty goals we have as a species. It is at this intersection of thought where imagination and action can produce amazing results. Humanity must perform an act of balance: thinking critically, challenging authority, and practicing skeptical analysis must harmonize with a desire to inspire others, to seek change in the world, and to maintain hope for humanity. Our success or failure to do so will ultimately determine whether we are destined to swim deep into the inviting Waters of the Cosmic Ocean, or forever be confined to the Shores. Although Carl Sagan is over a decade gone, his legacy of writings and teachings continue to inspire, transcending boundaries of age, gender, nation, and scientific literacy. Because of the work of a single human being, it is all the more likely that the flickering sparks of his species’ imagination and wonder will ignite into passionate flames, illuminating the Cosmic Ocean with a brilliance to rival the Milky Way.